Photos courtesy of the Bundeskriminalamt
German journalist Patrick Gensing on the Zwickau Cell serial murders and why Germany failed to prevent neo-Nazi terrorism.
Zwickau, November 4, 2011: an explosion and resulting fire devastate a flat on the second storey of a house in the small eastern German town. When police enter the flat, they discover evidence linking the three neo-Nazis (two men, one women) living there to the cold-blooded, racially motivated murders of nine men (eight of Turkish descent, one Greek), the fatal shooting of a policewoman and the detonation of a nail bomb in a predominantly Turkish neighbourhood in Cologne. That same day, the two men of the group, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt, commit suicide during a standoff with police after they rob a bank in Eisenach.
Four days later, Beate Zschäpe turns herself in to the police in Jena. Zschäpe is currently in investigative custody, with trial expected to begin in spring 2013. The discovery of the group that called themselves the National Social Underground (NSU) – tagged the Zwickau Cell or “Brown Army Faction” by the media – has sent a shock wave across the German establishment, as have subsequent revelations about the incompetence of law enforcement in monitoring the violent neo-Nazi scene.
In his new book Terror von rechts (Terror from the Right), Hamburg journalist Patrick Gensing raises pressing questions about the state agencies’ blindness to the far-right threat and points to structural racism within German society.
A lot of details about the Zwickau Cell (NSU) are still murky. Why did you choose to write this book now?
The book is not meant to be a detailed history of the NSU. Rather, I wanted to show how misled most Germans have been on the issue of right-wing terrorism, which, ultimately, is not just a national security problem but a societal problem. Most of the current media coverage focuses heavily on the investigative committees and all the scandals related to the Verfassungsschutz (Germany’s internal intelligence service), which is fine, but I think something else lies behind the whole issue: everyday racism. The fact that the media, police and the public simply wouldn’t recognise racist terrorism as such for so long, probably because we don’t want to and because in Germany we are very quick to see people with an immigrant background as criminals – this is what I want to address with this book.
Can you give us some examples of how this racism can be found in the German media and police?
It runs like a thread through the whole series of murders, through the investigations and through the reporting on it. The police were quick to concentrate their murder investigations on a possible link to organised and drug crime. I would attribute this to the image that many Germans have of the immigrants, seeing them first and foremost as criminals and not as victims. It runs all the way to the media, when they dubbed those racist murders “döner murders” (Döner-Morde) – there was even talk about a “döner gang”, because the police reported that two of the victims (out of nine) had worked in döner shops! This is a big embarrassment for the media and obviously extremely hurtful to the victims and their families. The fact is that very often, police press releases use very loose terminology. For example, when a black person is attacked they often describe it as an “anti-foreigner attack”, when in fact it’s a racist attack.
The press was quick to name the NSU the “Brown Army Faction” – but can you really compare the NSU to the RAF (Red Army Faction)?
This connection to the RAF is totally wrong, because the logic at work is different. Left-wing terrorists didn’t murder because they just wanted to murder. Their ultimate target – as justified with crude texts – was to create a better society, which of course is contradictory if you first have to shoot people. I don’t want to compare them in terms of their cruelty. For the victims and their kin it’s always equally horrible, of course. But when it comes to the ideology it’s very different. For right-wing terrorists the extermination of the enemy is the message. Since the Third Reich, a central element of Nazi thinking has been ‘extermination’, and there is an ideological continuity through today. They are Nazis, not despite Auschwitz, but because of Auschwitz. That’s their core competence: extermination.
Are you saying the neo-Nazi movement is a monster that has always remained under the surface of German society since the Third Reich and sometimes shows its ugly head?
There is a continuity of the neo-Nazi scene since the Second World War. It’s not as if they just disappeared. First you had the old Nazis, and in the 1970s a new generation emerged which established the organisations which are around today, like the Kameradschaften etc. This explains why the far-right scene in Germany hasn’t been doing well politically. In other European countries, they have a modernised version of far-right extremism which is much more successful when it comes to parliamentary elections. Not here. I don’t think the NPD, as the parliamentary wing of this Nazi movement, has a big future. They are not that powerful. But these people are dangerous and they perhaps become more dangerous because they have no political influence. The NSU cell believed that Germany will be totally durchrasst, and so they felt they were waging a racial war. You can read on the website of the Blood and Honour neo-Nazi movement: “You’re in a war, form cells, defend yourselves...” These concepts were all adopted by the NSU.
One of Merkel’s immediate reactions after the revelations about the NSU murders was “ban the NPD”. Was that really an appropriate reaction?
Yes and no. It was a diversion tactic. It was also supposed to demonstrate a capacity to act in some way. Of course the NPD is a symptom of the problem and not the cause but, independently from the murders, I think it should be banned. People in the party belong to the supporter network of the NSU. Ralf Wohlleben was a high-up NPD functionary charged with assisting them. Beate Zschäpe, Uwe Mundlos and Uwe Böhnhardt come from Jena; you can see photos with them and NPD people. As I write in the book, NPD and NSU are two crosspoints in the “brown network”. The NSU is the armed wing of the movement. You can’t say that they’re separate.
People against a ban of the NPD say it would push neo-Nazis further into the underground...
That’s speculation. It might be true for a few, but as we saw an underground movement can form even without a ban. The NPD is financing the militant Nazi scene. Hundreds of thousands of euros flow into the scene through the NPD parliamentary groups in Saxony and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. I don’t see why a democracy should tolerate such a neo-Nazi party.
Do you think people like Thilo Sarrazin, whose questionable ideas about immigration and race made it into the German mainstream in 2012, are dangerous?
Definitely! These Nazi murders should be put in the context of the society at the time when they took place. If you look back at the 1990s, you see these racist pogroms in Rostock and Hoyerswerda where ordinary citizens and neo-Nazis came together as huge sausage-eating mobs... That’s where these three people were socialised! That’s where this generation learned that something could be achieved through violence. This is exactly the time when the big media were stirring up resentment against asylum seekers, and when the CDU started running a campaign against dual citizenship. You can’t say that these things caused the murders, but one could say that the murderers felt strengthened by it.
Would you say a certain class of German conservatives started to radicalise itself?
When you look at the current absurd debate on circumcision in Germany, which is hugely anti-Jewish, or at the so-called ‘integration debate’, which stirs up animosity towards Muslims, or, yes, Sarrazin’s book... yes, that’s the scary thing: you have a middle class that is beginning to become more radicalised, people made insecure by economic problems that are lashing out at foreigners. If you incite violence against targeted groups for years and years, certain individuals might end up taking action and reach for their weapons. Anders Breivik is a good example. Politically, you can position him exactly in this “Islam critical” (as they call themselves) movement on the internet...
The writing was on the wall since the first neo-Nazi bombing at the 1980 Oktoberfest. Why didn’t the police and Verfassungsschutz do a better job preventing it?
The Verfassungsschutz turned a blind eye to it. If you look at the files from the investigations that are now in the Bundestag, it’s clear that they knew a lot. But nothing was done with the information! One of the problems is that the Verfassungsschutz was founded as protection against communism. Now the Eastern Bloc is gone, but the structures and people have remained and their understanding and competency with regards to the far right is limited. All the Thüringen Verfassungsschutz people come from Hessen in the west, which was a very conservative state for a long time. For example, in Thüringen they wrote a one-and-a-half-page report on a single Antifa action during a neo-Nazi event whereas the three NSU people, who had gone underground at that point, were mentioned in barely a couple of lines. Such complete overestimation of the left-wing scene compared to the far-right threat is still there. That’s dangerous.